Renowned linguist Walt Wolfram always asks Black History Month event audiences if they’ve ever heard a presentation on African American speech before. No one has ever raised a hand.
“How can we study black history without including language?” Wolfram asks. The director and founder of The Language and Life Project (LLP) at NC State, Wolfram leads a team that conducts field research and outreach programs related to language in the American South. The project produces many educational and cultural resources, including a host of media from DVDs to podcasts to museum exhibits.
The Project premieres its latest film, Talking Black in America, on Thursday, March 23, at 7 p.m. in the Hunt Library Auditorium. Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the entertaining film presents an overview of the history of African American speech for a general audience, touching upon key aspects of its development and addressing widely held misconceptions.
The film is produced by LLP’s Emmy award-winning documentary producers, Danica Cullinan and Neal Hutcheson.
The free, public screening is brought to you by NCSU Libraries Presents. After the screening, Wolfram will be joined by NC State’s Dr. Craig Brookins and Durham-based poet/musician/author Shirlette Ammons for a post-film discussion.
Concentrating on everyday speakers and real-world experiences, Talking Black in America presents an informed portrait of language issues specific to African American heritage and culture. Shot in locations as diverse as Harlem, Charleston, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, rural Mississippi and the Bahamas, the film includes southern, urban, and rural areas, Northern metropolitan areas, and transitional and controversial areas such as Oakland during the Ebonics hearings in the late 1990s. Supporting commentary is provided by linguists, historians and other experts.
Wolfram is excited about the way the film addresses biases and stereotypes about African American speech. “It’s highly patterned, and it has all of these intricate rules,” he says. “It’s not a ‘collection of errors,’ which many people think it is. That’s a very important thing we’re trying to stress.”
“Also, very few people know anything about where African American speech comes from, how it brought elements from its original contact with English and has borne that imprint down through the ages. That imprint includes distinctive speech structures like the absence of the verb “to be”—as in ‘He ugly’ or ‘She nice.’”
“That structure is clearly attributable to the contact situation because there’s nothing comparable to it in English and British dialects, while there are lots of African languages that have that sort of structure,” Wolfram notes. “Most of the what we call substrate influences—that is, things from the original language—tend to be fairly subtle now. But they’re clearly there and they’ve been a part of African American speech since the original contact situation. So we do have that continuity with West African languages through the Caribbean and the Middle Passage. And of course African American speech has a lot in common with Caribbean Creole languages too.”
The film does not shy away from politics in tracing these historical and geographical connections. “Issues come up in terms of comprehension and discrimination,” Wolfram says. “You look at certain legal trials, at linguistic profiling, where people are denied things like housing because they hear a black voice over the phone. There are important aspects of social equality that come along with the language.”
Talking Black in America represents a major accomplishment for the LLP and a personal one for Wolfram as well.
“To some extent I view this film as my life’s work,” he says. “We returned to Detroit where I did research in 1965 in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, which incidentally is the home of Diana Ross and the Supremes. So I did research there in 1965, and in 2016 I returned to the site for this film.”
"Talking Black" will be distributed national and internationally over the next year. It will also be shown on Tuesday, April 4 at 7 p.m. in Witherspoon Hall as a part of the Common Reading Program event “Hearing is Believing,” which includes a panel discussion about language-based prejudice and the criminal justice system. The film will then tour college campuses around the country.
Read more about the film, including a full interview with Wolfram.